A passion for agriculture is what brought 50 young farmers to the Washington, D.C., area this week, as part of a national networking forum for the next generation of producers.

“We want to let young producers know that their voice is important and they shouldn’t be hesitant or bashful about communicating with policymakers,” said Gordon Stone, executive vice president of the National Young Farmer Educational Association, or NYFEA, which sponsored Agriculture’s Promise: The Washington Forum.

Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse joined several speakers on day two of the three-day event — held Monday, Feb. 4 at National Harbor — to provide an overview of the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management and Foreign Agricultural Service and encourage discussion about USDA’s programs and policies. Scuse mentioned a new microloan program designed to help small and family operations, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers secure loans under $35,000. Microloans will help producers through their start-up years by providing needed resources and helping to increase equity so that farmers may eventually graduate to commercial credit and expand their operations. Scuse also spoke about the importance of communicating effectively with rural America.

“We need to work together to make agriculture strong, to make rural America strong, so that when we speak, our voice is heard,” said Scuse. “That’s the message we are trying to get out. That’s the message we would ask all of you to get out.”

From 2009-2012, U.S. agricultural exports alone generated more than $478 billion that supported more than 1 million jobs in communities across the country. According to Scuse, for every 1 billion dollars in trade, 7,800 jobs are supported. “Agriculture has been part of the backbone of this nation’s economy for the last several years,” he said. “Our rural communities faired far better than the big cities did.”

Jami Willard has been attending the forum for the past four years and wants her work in the field to positively impact others.

“I want to make big changes and help set people up to succeed,” said Willard, a Penn State graduate who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania but currently works at Northwest Harvest, a non-profit food bank distributor in Washington state. “I understand the complexity of the industry and I can talk to producers and do something to impact people positively. [Through this program] my voice is being heard.”

Participants heard from representatives from the Farm Credit Administration, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Tyson Food. They also had round table discussions, receptions with congressional leaders and took a trip to Capitol Hill for a Congressional briefing.

This is Kathryn Shallenberger’s third year attending the program. An agriculture teacher in Illinois, Shallenberger grew up on a 200-acre corn and soybean farm. “This program has provided a network of people for guidance and support,” said Shallenberger. “It offers an opportunity for me to take back the message to my students that the world is so much bigger than them and what we do in agriculture now won’t only affect them, but their parents and their children.”